Imagining Medieval Ethiopia

In 1389, Johannes Witte de Hese, a priest in the diocese of Utrecht, began an ambitious pilgrimage to the East. After a visit to Jerusalem, he traveled to Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, visited Mount Sinai, and sailed down the Niel to the city of Damiad. From there he boarded a ship for Ethiopia, otherwise known as Lower India. Continuing by ship from that kingdom, he came to the land of the Pygmies:

small people, being in height one ell tall, and they are misshapen. And they have no houses but live in grottoes in the mountains, and in caves, and in shells; nor do they have bread, but rather [eat] sorts of lactiferous plants, just like beasts. And it is said in that place that the Pygmies frequently fight with storks. And the storks sometimes kill their young boys.

If Witte’s story is starting to sound ridiculous by now, there’s a good reason. Witte almost certainly didn’t exist, and if he did he most certainly never made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, and beyond, as described in his Itinerarius. Despite being entirely a work of fiction, assembled from a mixture of myth, legend, other travelogues, and pure invention, the Itinerarius was a moderately popular medieval text. Eight Latin manuscripts survive, as do three translations into Middle Dutch, and eleven editions of the text were printed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. As Scott D. Westrem explains in his study and translation of the Itinerarius (the Medieval Academy of America has kindly made it available online), “the book is evidence of the existence, or at least the nascence, of travel writing as a literary genre in the later Middle Ages.”

The wooliness of the author’s geography makes it hard to tell exactly where Witte positions Ethiopia. This is, after all, a book where the the traveler sails from India to visit both Paradise and Purgatory, then cooks dinner on the back of a whale (a story clearly borrowed from tales of Saint Brendan). Ethiopia is described as “the kingdom called Lower India, where Saint Bartholomew preached,” and described as three months sailing on the Sea-Ocean from the port of Damiad on the Nile. None of this really makes sense, especially since Witte says he reaches Damiad by going from Sinai through the land of Ur of the Chaldeans (presumably Mesopotamia), then down the Nile. It’s all a farrago of other people’s geographies – Westrem notes that many medieval maps showed the Nile flowing from east Asia into Egypt, which at least explains that part of Witte’s journey – and general ambiguity.

Unlike its ostensible descriptions Paradise and Purgatory, the Itinerarius‘s highly imaginative depiction of Ethiopia obscures the fact that there were real, practical connections between Europe and Ethiopia in the fourteenth century. I even wrote them into the first draft of It’s a Feudal, Feudal World.

During Late Antiquity, Christian Ethiopia had been a major power in Red Sea geopolitics, clashing with the Jewish South Arabian kingdom of Himyar as part of the power struggle between the Byzantine and Sasanian Persian empires (a fascinating story which is told in G.W. Bowersock’s book The Throne of Adulis). Though connections with western Europe were understandably tenuous, especially after the rise of Islam, Ethiopia was never isolated from the world. When the Crusades brought medieval Europeans back into the Middle East in force, Ethiopia became a potential Christian ally against the Islamic powers positioned between them.

The first direct contact was an Ethiopian embassy to Europe circa 1306, eight years or so before the Itinerarius. That mission sparked a series of follow-up embassies in 1402, 1404, and 1427. The second of these led to the creation of the first Latin–Amharic phrasebook, the third to the offer of a dynastic marriage with the kingdom of Aragon in Spain. The Ethiopian delegates to the Council of Florence in 1441 were represented on a door panel of St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Ethiopian embassy to Rome in 1481 may have been memorialized on the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel (as Marco Bonechi argues here). In return, Italian merchants began traveling to Ethiopia to enter the Indian Ocean trade with India. Matteo Salvadore’s article on the era is titled “The Ethiopian Age of Exploration, 1306–1458,” which nicely captures the dynamism of the Ethiopian efforts to connect themselves with the Mediterranean world.

One of the consequences of all these contacts was that the Itinerarius imaginative account of Ethiopia became obsolete, though that didn’t mean that what replaced it was necessarily accurate. Witte, like most of his contemporaries, placed the mythical Christian king Prester John in India or Central Asia. Contact with Ethiopia meant that later descriptions tended to shift him into Africa and identify him as an Ethiopian emperor: a decision which tended to flummox actual Ethiopian dignitaries in Europe.

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